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‘Jackie Robinson’: New PBS Documentary Explores His Life and Legacy

Several movies, including the 2013 biopic 42, have shown part of the story of the life of baseball great and civil rights advocate Jackie Robinson. Now a new documentary directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon and titled simply Jackie Robinson offers a deeper take on the man who broke the baseball color barrier. Set to air April 11 and 12 on PBS, this two-part, four-hour film focuses on Robinson’s lifelong fight for equality, both on and off the field.

“Most film treatments of Jackie Robinson’s life have focused on the beginning of Robinson’s baseball career and his historic breaking of the color line in Major League Baseball,” explains David McMahon of Florentine Films. “But while Robinson’s first season was hugely important to the history of baseball and civil rights in America, it’s incomplete.”

This documentary considers Robinson’s entire life, from his birth in 1919 to tenant farmers in rural Georgia to his premature death at age 53 from complications from diabetes.

Jackie Robinson and others marching for civil rights in San Francisco in 1963. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

“We look at his early life in Pasadena, Calif., from his athletic achievements to his run-ins with police authority and his efforts to challenge segregation there as a teenager,” adds McMahon. “And the story goes beyond baseball, to Robinson’s newspaper columns, work on political campaigns and fundraising efforts for civil rights causes. Robinson confronted racism in every aspect of his life and constantly spoke out to challenge it. It’s so critical to see the broader picture of Robinson, to understand him in three dimensions, because it allows us to connect the dots across history and make him even more relevant today.”

Of the technical considerations of this biography, McMahon explains, “We went to great lengths to make sure that the images in the show all play beautifully on our viewers’ TV sets. For the archival footage, Stephanie Jenkins, our associate producer, tracked down the original film—with enormous help from the archivists at dozens of archives—and had a magnificent HD scan made of many of the clips in the show.”

The team’s photo restoration specialist, Tim McAleer, spent hundreds of hours repairing and cleaning the more than 600 images that appear in the final cut—some of which were torn, had suffered mold damage or had begun to decay.

“Our colleagues at Technicolor digitally removed the most egregious scratches on the film, applied gorgeous color corrections and smoothed out the digital moves on our still photographs, among many other small touches that make the visuals really soar,” adds McMahon.

The resulting efforts will help ensure that player 42 will continue to leave his mark for another generation of baseball fans.